Sympathy for the Devil
For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.
Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler's concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life, a period that would never return?
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
—The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil
I confess: I think he went out like a man.
He refused the hood while his executioners concealed their faces. He betrayed no fear or resentment (at least while the cameras were on). I don’t know if this was design or merely resignation, but it serves as a brilliant final act of defiance. A more striking portrait of our failure in Iraq, and the tragic assumptions creating it, you couldn’t devise: the dictator Hussein can bare his face, but his executioners cannot.
If he could not transfer the shame that he did not (and would not know how to) possess, he could still compel fear, and it was a well grounded fear that required his hangmen to hide their identities. Now this defiant and, yes, dignified death, will help to sustain the remnants of his supporters a little while longer, as they spend themselves in bloodthirsty revenge. His evil outlives him. How many despots can claim to strike from the very grave?
I’ll further confess: I felt pity for him.
No small part of that pity is due to the fact that his death marks the terminus of yet another passage in my own too-fleeting life. In our lives. He became part of our culture, an exemplar of brutality that we made into a caricature of evil. This is my sacrilege: I will mourn the phenomenon that was Saddam in the American imagination. As accomplished as he was at despotism, he was helpless once he became a representation in the panoply of cultural archetypes. In the end he never had a chance.
But why sympathy for this monster? Sympathy for the unsympathetic can help to clarify things. The pressure to give no quarter to those identified as beyond redemption, inherently religious (if not very Christian), blinds us; this is how we allowed this war to happen. It became a widely held article of faith that “bringing Saddam to justice” was a morally unassailable act. This was the distraction, the magician’s puff of smoke.
So it helps if we can take our eyes away from it. If you put out of your mind for a moment Saddam’s visage, it becomes clear just what the Administration was up to when the were plastering it all over the news and hypocritically wailing, “he gassed his own people!”
If we can strip away the false outrage of our conniving leaders, if we can resist the pull of the mass, if we can brave the condemnation that would all but declare us complicit in mass murder, we can see things as they are, not as they are packaged and presented for consumption.
I, for one, am willing to consider that Saddam, the sociopath, may have been the best Iraq could have hoped for, for the time being. The moral thing to do regarding Saddam Hussein may have been to leave him right where he was, contained and constrained, with the clock nearing midnight. This is considered unthinkable by many out of little more than habit; unutterable by people who clamor for more chaos, more warfare, more troops fed into the grinder of Iraq. But never trust someone who advocates war on moral grounds. He is either a liar or a fool; or both.
Iraq deserved a chance at a peaceful denouement to the Saddam years. Iraq deserved its chance to develop by increments a more civilized means of governance. Saddam wasn’t going to live, or last, forever; weakened and contained he was destined to live out his life limited even in his capacity to control all of Iraq.
Of course, Vice President Cheney didn’t want to allow Iraq to determine its own fate; he didn’t have the time or patience for that. What he wanted was certainty; certainty regarding the circumstances of the lifting of sanctions and the development of Iraq’s vast oil wealth. The war was a gambit unrecognized as such, disguised as necessity and glorified as a crusade. These are the crimes we should concern ourselves with.
As Saddam and his executioners prayed together before he was taken away, two of his guards chanted the name of what is perhaps his likeliest successor: “Moktada, Moktada, Moktada.” Removing Saddam was always the easy part; treating him as an aberration was naïve. Now Iraq must pay for our naivete.
This is the justice the vanity and ignorance of our president, manipulated by his more cunning but barely more capable handlers, bestows upon the world. The greatest nation on earth, relegated to the role of spoiler in the dismal realm of Iraqi politics.
Justice was never ours to render; Saddam, and Iraq, committed no crimes against us. Some of these crimes were in fact abetted or willfully ignored by us, hence the truncated nature of his trial and the haste of his execution, before the defendant was given the chance to embarrass the United States. Saddam would pass out of the custody of the U.S. military just hours before he would hang, and no doubt not until every assurance had been made that there would be no delay in sending him to the gallows. This was not justice, this was an expression of power. Worse, it was an uncertain, ignoble, and unconfident expression of power.
Justice is for the aggrieved, for the people; for nations there is only the law, accomodation, or war. That’s why the triumphalism, now so pathetically muted in passive acknowledgement of its absurdity, surrounding the capture and conviction of Saddam Hussein stinks of dishonesty. Originally we, and the Iraqis, were supposed to be sated by this offering; now it takes place with the same furtive, anxious air that accompanied the transfer of sovereignty.
The inter-war years were spent distilling in the public mind the image of Saddam Hussein as our era’s Joseph Stalin. Our culture, comprised largely of television and cinema dominated by satirical irreverence, unwittingly served the wilderness-dwelling neocons’ ends by maintaining this mythology of Saddam Hussein as a singular evil. Saddam was presented not as a product of Mesopotamia’s tribal culture, but as if he had welled up out of the Iraqi desert like the bitumen that was recorded near what is now Baghdad as early as 3000 B.C. (the earliest such)—a byproduct of the true source of our interest, and as great a cause of Iraq’s woes as anything else.
We have forsaken the law to take advantage of our power, to wage war at will and to eschew any responsibility for defending our actions. Might makes right. It is a foreign policy so corrupt that it threatens to destroy us. Our incompetent leadership, by no means limited to the Administration, have taken this priceless advantage in power and turned it against us by employing it profligately. They will destroy us by it, if we allow them.
Now, with the farce of Saddam’s trial, the Bush Administration weakens, not just for us but for the world, international law and the concept of crimes against humanity.
Our neocon elders scoff at the notion of international law. It is toothless; it allows such as Saddam to endure. What is concealed in all the lofty, and not-so-lofty, rhetoric about flabby diplomacy and compromised internationalism, is the fact that their arguments amount to no more than this: international law and diplomacy are imperfect. Even as we get an abject, tragic lesson in just how much more imperfect and destructive is their new order imposed by an American colossus, they remain unrepentant, and more insistent by the day. They are impervious to reason because they have come to the conclusion that reason is a detriment. They believe in will and power creating reality; reason has nothing to do with it.
For them there is only this illusory redemptive power of might and will. We invaded a nation, eradicated its government and imprisoned its leadership; we created a rump legal system with which to try and execute its dictator for crimes we either ignored or encouraged before he became inconvenient to us.
We justify this by citing the list of Saddam’s crimes, yet we hastened his execution before the worst of these crimes can be tried in court. Even as we are drawn into the maelstrom of Arab tribal violence our own actions have precipitated, and our warmongers demand ever more severe measures be taken to subdue the nation they claim we have liberated. It is worse than a farce; it is a crime. But one must ask: what has been accomplished?
We have delivered Iraq from Saddam to Moktada, or whatever new villain or cast of villains might prevail after an extended period of chaos and bloodshed.
Neocons like to aver that the previous status quo goal of stability in the Middle East is a decadent and immoral order that we have the obligation to shatter and replace with transformative democracy. Don’t you believe it, because they certainly don’t.
At least not the first-string players, many of whom are pointing fingers at the coaches, management, the fans even, everyone but themselves, and the game's not even over yet.
The neocon agitprop bench-warmers, now gleefully exulting in the playing minutes they’re getting in our political equivalent of junk-time, don't seem to even know what game they're playing. Frightening; more frightening, to me at least, than a weak despot halfway around the world.
What they want is a new world order entirely on our terms; impossible to attain and beyond any rational justification. They continue to promote their madness because they have committed themselves to the process, and turning back now means surrender, while driving onward means that they may still manage to saddle the nation, and the world, with the fait accompli of a broadened war in the Middle East. They are forcing the issue; “immanentizing the eschaton.” They are not a “new” sort of conservative; they are not any sort of conservative. They are radicals of the worst order, provocateurs of global strife. They are of a kind with anarchists, communists, fascists--and they have gained influence within a nation of unprecedented global power.
This is what the execution of Saddam Hussein means.
If our leaders were truly outraged by Saddam’s crimes against humanity they would have confidently turned him over to an international court, not to the Shi’ite thugs so eager to take up his mantle.
Turning a murderer over to those he has sinned against may carry some justice, it may very well be deserved, but it isn't necessarily lawful. Justice is ephemeral and subjective, rendered by those with might or the moment’s advantage; the law binds and limits us all, weak and strong alike. It is an imperfect buttress against tyranny and chaos; it is also the essence of civilization. But it imposes limitations, even upon the strong. Even upon us. This is the target of our necon radicals; the reason for their unblushing embrace of war and power, and their shameful slandering of diplomacy and international law. Seeing that we are strongest they declare, for the world, the rule of the strongest. They justify it by citing our moral superiority; a moral superiority that is forfeit by the same expression of global might that they identify as its natural and proper mandate.
Note how many who justify the war because of the brutality of Hussein clamor for ever sterner measures in suppressing the insurgency. It’s not merely that they propose killing to put an end to killing; we all know that in some circumstances this can be justified, if it’s the destruction of criminal renegades waging war upon a peaceful majority, or of one hostile nation assaulting another. But if the war has taught us anything, it’s that Saddam Hussein was less an aberration than a refinement of Arabic brutality. Shortly after Ayad Allawi was selected as interim prime minister of Iraq, a story circulated about him summarily executing, by his own hand, a prisoner to establish his authority. Some applauded this, comically, gruesomely, unaware of the irony.
Saddam once held utility for us; he did so when we encouraged and assisted his brutal and mindlessly bloody assault on Iran (and this is why he wasn’t allowed to live to speak to the charges of war crimes concerning it); he did so when Donald Rumsfeld, that virtuoso of moral equivalence and obfuscation, declined to impolitely mention the gassing of the Kurds when he shook hands with Hussein in 1983.*
Our complicity vis a vis Iraqi brutality was one reason why so many leftists became neocon fellow travelers; Christopher Hitchens has made the argument that Gulf War I and the sanctions regime of the nineties caused undue harm upon the people of Iraq; subsequently they had become our wards, to be rescued from Saddam and turned over to the beneficent embrace of Hitchens' friend, Ahmad Chalabi.
But Saddam fit too well the role in which he was cast. In the end perhaps it was the moustache that did him in. It was too perfect, too Stalinesque. Had he a lesser moustache, maybe a thin, Latin-playboy thing, he wouldn’t have looked so imposing, and would have veered too much toward comic and away from sinister; had he been clean shaven, he might not have so easily been seared in the American public’s imagination.
It was his ability to capture the public’s fascination that made it so very easy for Dick Cheney and his criminal gang of fools to conflate him with jihadi terrorists in the public’s mind. These same terrorists would have liked to take him out themselves; they were kept at bay by the same brutality that Hussein used to suppress his moderates. We have done them a favor. Don’t expect them to reciprocate. Of course now this tragic, monumental blunder, making a potential terrorist haven where one had virtually no chance of arising, out of the nation with the second richest oil reserves in the world, is offered as the very reason to press on, without even the slightest acknowledgement of the irony. And I began by saying Saddam had balls!
Perhaps it marks me out as finally and utterly dissolute, but I can’t muster any sense that justice has been served by the hanging of Saddam Hussein (this is not the same as saying he didn’t deserve it; they are not the same thing). I can’t, I won’t, pretend to draw satisfaction from it. Maybe it’s my inherent racism, my lack of sophistication, my isolationism (isolationism and xenophobia of course consisting of standing against killing foreigners in our perverse times), to care far more for the fate of my country than for that of another. But I don’t think so.
Maybe I’ve grown too old to humor myself, or my fellows.
But tonight, at least once, I will raise my glass and silently toast a true hall-of-fame despot; he nearly made it all the way to 2007, after spending the last thirteen years in a state of war with the United States. No mean feat, that.
*Correction: Udolpho points out in the comments thread that the use of poison gas against the Kurds happened in 1988. Dohh! That's going to leave a mark.